The concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere made the biggest jump last year since 1984, according to the World Meteorological Organization’s (WMO) Greenhouse Gas Bulletin, raising alarm bells about society’s inaction on curbing global warming.
“Far from falling, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere actually increased last year at the fastest rate for nearly 30 years,” Michel Jarraud, the WMO Secretary General, said in a statement. “We must reverse this trend by cutting emissions of CO2 and other greenhouse gases across the board.”
Carbon dioxide rose 2.9 parts per million (ppm) from 2012-2013 to a grand total of 396 ppm, very close to the symbolic level of 400 ppm. Since carbon dioxide levels fluctuate throughout the year and the region, the 400 threshold was first passed in May of last year before falling again.
The Greenhouse Gas Bulletin monitors the level of atmospheric greenhouse gases in the atmosphere—not emissions from human sources. This monitoring allows scientists to track how concentrations in the atmosphere are responding to highly-complex processes between human-caused emissions and the capacity of the world’s carbon sinks to sequester greenhouse gases.
“We know without any doubt that our climate is changing and our weather is becoming more extreme due to human activities such as the burning of fossil fuels,” said Jarraud.
According to the Greenhouse Gas Bulletin, carbon dioxide levels have jumped by 42 percent since 1750. Methane has soared even higher, jumping by 153 percent during the same time period, while nitrous oxide has climbed by 21 percent.
Sunset in Namibia. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.
Methane is actually a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide in the short-term. Although the gas doesn’t stay in the atmosphere as long as carbon—which can persist for centuries—it is 34 times more potent than carbon over a hundred year time scale.
But the new data raises concerns that the world’s carbon sinks, most importantly the oceans, may be near saturation.
“We don’t understand if this is temporary or if it is a permanent state, and we are a bit worried about that,” Oksana Tarasova, a researcher with the WMO, told the BBC. “It could be that the biosphere is at its limit but we cannot tell that at the moment.”
The Greenhouse Gas Bulletin also pointed to another impact from burning fossil fuels: ocean acidification. As the ocean’s take-in extra carbon, pH levels fall in the oceans leading to a change in chemistry that could impact thousands of species, perhaps even leading to mass extinction.
According to the report, the rate at which the oceans are acidifying is faster than any time in the last 300 million years.
“Carbon dioxide remains in the atmosphere for many hundreds of years and in the ocean for even longer. Past, present and future CO2 emissions will have a cumulative impact on both global warming and ocean acidification. The laws of physics are non-negotiable,” noted Jarraud.
Next year will be a big one for global climate negotiations. Nations will have until December 2015 in Paris to pound out a new international agreement to tackle the worsening crisis. In the meantime, activists are revving up for what they call the largest climate march in history at the end of the month in New York City, which will coincide with one of many climate meetings before Pais.
“We are running out of time,” Jarraud added.
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